The desert, like the deep blue ocean, has always been an enigma for humanity since time travel began. Those who ventured into its mysteries faced uncertainties, leading them to unnecessary wanderings, madness, and almost always death. However, it didn’t stop them. History is full of stories of people crossing sand dunes and arid mountains, braving an unfavorable climate and unforeseeable dangers. In a way, the Semitic religions survived not only the wrath of the unfriendly kings and gods of their time, but also those hostile terrains and climates.
Muzafer Ahamed’s book Camels in the sky is a modern take on journeys through the deserts of Saudi Arabia, where the author lived for nearly a decade and a half as a journalist. This is a translation of the Academy of Kerala Sahitya’s award-winning Essay Collection in Malayalam, more poetically titled Autobiography of the desert. The English translation includes some additional essays.
No easy trip
Considering modern transportation and communications, it may seem that journeys through deserts in the 21st century involve little to no risk, unlike in historical times. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we move into this book, the illusion quickly wears off. Despite the accuracy of GPS, the wilderness is not yet a joyous ride for people, with many contingencies, challenges, risks and dangers awaiting the traveler.
Consider the unexpected desert storm this book’s travelers encounter along the road to Mushaikhira. The result is not much different from the affliction of sudden blindness at a busy intersection in José Saramago’s novel. Soon the car sank into the sand and the travelers’ efforts to get the tires out were in vain.
That’s not all. Along the way, they see the carcass of a huge camel long dead, teeth bared, as if waiting for green shoots and water. Ahamed writes, “As we stood there it became quite evident how terrible and lonely death can be in a desert. ”
Ironically perhaps, Camels in the sky, a travelogue in the desert, always puts water at the center of the discussions. Water here becomes the bone of contention. Wars are waged against the ownership of water wells in the deserts. The clans engage in endless clashes over their rights, and the complexities that ensue lead them to fight in court.
Traveling to the desert for the first time, to report on rural life in Al Jouf for the Malayalam newspaper in Jeddah in which he worked, the author had an encounter with one of these warring factions. While attempting to photograph a well, the reporters were attacked by a violent crowd who believed they were taking photos to gather evidence in support of one of the suitors. The experience stayed with the writer. You cannot separate the water wars from the history of the deserts, and they also form a large part of the history of Arabia, he would later write.
Unlike Kerala, where heavy rains are now a part of life, rain in deserts is a rare sight, lasting a few minutes or even seconds. Sometimes it’s so short that humans don’t see it at all. There is a “one drop” rain that pours a single drop of rainwater over the vast expanse of sand and instantly disappears.
Perhaps the Bedouins, former settlers of the desert, can recognize the passing presence of rain. They claim that the dry gaaf tree, hibernating in the heat of death for years, needs only one drop of rain for its leaves and shoots to grow. The author considers the gaaf to be a metaphor for Bedouin tribal life. Their existence, their endurance, their struggles, their survival – everything is etched in the life story of this indomitable tree.
Light and dark
Water shines in the desert by its absence everywhere. Light, on the contrary, is at the center of most of the essays here, which rely on its presence. The interplay of light and shadow in arid lands is still evident. The sand dunes transform into countless shapes and figures in the sun. The sun sets suddenly in the desert, says the author, and until the last moment it seems that he has all the time in the world before going to bed.
Then he lies down, as if countless blankets had been used to hide him. Complete darkness follows in no time. Moonlit nights have a mysterious aura here, and the flow of moonbeams seems to move and lift the sand, turning the desert into a sea.
Another pattern that appears frequently in these pages is that of rot. Dead trees, camel carcasses, dogs, snakes, fossils of prehistoric animals visit and revisit the reader throughout the book. The desert has a strange ability to preserve these relics for posterity. You will find them everywhere. Always.
At the same time, the desert is so passionate that it can wipe all traces of life from its surface in the blink of an eye. In the dances of the storms, even the oases are gone forever. Even the seas bordering arid lands have been swallowed up by their eternal thirst. In this sense, we believe that the desert itself is a fossil of its own vibrant past.
Any trip through these lands is therefore a mystical visit to a museum presenting artefacts from the history of human civilization. The author tries to document the remains on the old paths taken by people who dared to nature.
Kerala can boast of having the largest number of its inhabitants in the Gulf countries. The history of this diaspora dates back to the 1960s, when these countries began to search for oil off the coast. Millions of Malayalis have lived in these countries since then, the majority struggling to earn a humble living. But the literature representing these struggles is hard to find in our language, except for a few examples like Goat days de Benyamin and some short stories and poems here and there.
On the other hand, the portrayal of Gulf Malayalis has almost always been pejorative in our mainstream films and fictions, where these nouveau riche play the role of illiterates and fools trying to show off their wealth and pomp. Ahamed’s travelogue, while not exactly about diaspora life, gives a vivid picture of life in the desert. An honest portrait of life, times and places.
What made him unique in Malayalam was the striking beauty of his language, his striking visuals and meditative calm between turbulent storms, as well as the concerns he raised about the politics of survival. PJ Mathew’s translation is so brilliant that I felt like I was re-reading the original in Malayalam. Subtle emotions and nuances are expertly narrated in a poetic diction in English.
Rarely has Malayalam non-fiction appeared in English translation. Travel diaries are no exception. However, there is no shortage of books in the genre – in Fatc, Malayalam has a long and illustrious tradition of travel writing. It goes back to Varthamana Pusthakam, by Parammekkal Thoma Kathanar (1736-1799), a Syriac Christian priest who recounted his historic trip to Rome to represent the grievances of Syrian Catholics in Kerala in the 18th century.
Others like SK Pottekkad, winner of the Jnanpith Prize, KP Kesava Menon, freedom fighter, Rajan Kakkanadan, painter, Ravindran, filmmaker, Paul Zacharia, writer – to name a few – have enriched the language of the modern times with articles and books that eventually became Benchmarks. Muzafer Ahamed inherits this rich heritage and manages to carry it forward.
Camels in the sky: trips to Arabia, V Muzafer Ahamed, translated from Malayalam by PJ Mathew, Oxford University Press.